Attack of the giant squid! (1874)

Last week, I ventured outside of my usual areas of expertise to discuss a paper I had stumbled across in a volume of the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, dated 1790, “letter relative to the kraken”. This prompted Sarah of The Language of Bad Physics to ask,

I love the articles you find for these. It got me looking, can you find the actual sources for NfL sightings? The 1873 “attack”?

It was an awesome question, and I knew immediately what she was talking about!  For those who don’t know, in 1873 a fisherman had a genuine battle with a giant squid off the coast of Newfoundland.  This battle, the only one of its kind I am aware of, was also momentous in that it resulted in the first giant squid specimen studied scientifically on land!

I was immediately intrigued, and went searching.  With my uber-internet search skills, I managed to find the paper within an hour!  The article is a letter by M. Murray, “Capture of a gigantic squid at Newfoundland,” The American Naturalist 8 (1874), 120-124.¹

Though if I keep writing posts about ocean life, I’m going to bring down the wrath of the Southern Friend Science Network or Deep Sea News upon me, I can’t resist discussing this paper.  Giant squid have been a topic of fascination for me for years, and this letter is too much fun!

For those unfamiliar, the giant squid, genus Architeuthis, is a deep-ocean dwelling squid with a habitat ranging over much of the world’s oceans, though particularly the north Atlantic.  The squid can reach frightening sizes: females are thought to reach lengths of up to 43 feet from tip of longest tentacles to tail, with a mantle (body) of up to 7 ft in length.  They possess 8 shorter arms and two longer tentacles, which they use to grab prey and drag it to their beaked mouth.  They have some of the largest eyes of the animal kingdom, measuring up to a foot in diameter — the size of dinner plates!  Due to their deep-ocean habitat, however, relatively little is still known about the behaviors of giant squid, and most animals observed in the wild have been dead or dying at the surface, with some notable exceptions to be discussed later in this post.

Modified version of 1880 drawing of Architeuthis by A.E. Verrill, via Wikipedia.

It will help to give a little background² on the understanding of giant squid up to the famous (infamous?) event I would like to discuss.   The association of science with the giant squid up through the 1850s is a bit murky; the existence of the creature seems to have been known, but a paucity of available specimens seems to have hindered interest in its study.  Whalers would collect bits and pieces of  squid from the bellies of their catches, though they rarely collected anything that would last beyond a beak.  Other specimens had been gathered during various mass beachings, but few if any of these seem to have been studied by a scientific eye.

Things changed as the 1800s progressed.  In the 1850s, Danish zoologist Japetus Steenstrup (1813-1897) gave a lecture in which he gathered together all the evidence for a giant cephalopod, including the historical beachings, a recovered beak of one of the creatures, and arguments that the legendary “sea monk” found in 1546 was in fact a squid.  Steenstrup also gave the animal its scientific name: Architeuthis!

Steenstrup’s comparison of early sea monk drawings with a squid, via Wikipedia.

Interest in the giant squid was fueled by the fortuitous collection of a giant squid by the French gunboat Alecton in 1861.  The boat spied the creature on the surface, obviously in distress, shot it multiple times and eventually hooked it.  They attempted to bring it aboard by throwing a rope around it, but the carcass split in two and they were left with a tail section.  Though not a complete specimen, it was apparently the freshest carcass to be observed by modern science at that time.

Artist’s impression of the Alecton incident, from an 1884 book Sea Monsters Unmasked.  Image via Wikipedia.

We may now flash forward a few years, to 1873.  Though it was not known at the time, and still apparently not well understood, giant squid undergo mass beachings in what seems to be a semi-period manner.  In the 1870s, another one was about to hit Newfoundland, and it would finally bring the giant squid directly into the arms of the scientific world.

To describe the letter itself, we should introduce a few of the characters involved in the tale:

  • Professor Louis Agassiz (1807-1873).  Professor of Zoology at Harvard University from 1859 until his death, he would be one of the original recipients of the published letter.
  • Professor Addison Emery Verrill (1839-1926).  Student of Agassiz and Professor of Zoology at Yale from 1862 until retirement in 1907.  He would receive photographs of the portions of the squid recovered from the battle and perform a scientific study of them, as well as other, later, specimens.
  • Reverend Mosey Harvey (1820-1901).  Presbyterian minister who emigrated from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1852, he would be the first to acquire the tentacles after the battle and provide the first description of them.  He would also become the local squid gatherer during the Newfoundland beachings.
  • Mr. Alexander Murray (1810-1884).  Geologist who emigrated from Scotland to Newfoundland in 1864 and became the first director of the Geological Survey of Newfoundland.  Murray would aid Harvey in the examination and preservation of the squid parts, and wrote the letter we will discuss.
  • Mr. Theophilus Picot.  Fisherman in Newfoundland, he would engage in a life-and-death struggle with the devilfish!

The conflict occurred in Conception Bay, Newfoundland.  Newfoundland itself, for those unfamiliar, is a cold island near the northeast corner of Canada.  It looks relatively undeveloped today and probably not much different from how it looked in 1873:

View of Conception Bay looking north from Portugal Cove, via Wikipedia.

So what actually happened?  Let’s look at the event through the letter sent to Professor Agassiz from St. John, Newfoundland by Mr. Murray, dated Nov. 10, 1873, and forwarded to The American Naturalist by Agassiz:

My Dear Sir: — The following account of a remarkable marine monster, which made its appearance off the shores of this island, and of a severed arm or tentacle of the same, now in my possession, will I dare say be interesting to you, and also to Prof. Agassiz, to whom I should like to offer it.

This introduction doesn’t say who the letter is directly sent to, but it is possibly Verrill, who ended up with the photographs!

On or about the 25th of October last, while a man by the name of Theophilus Picot was engaged at his usual occupation of fishing, off the eastern end of Great Bell Island in Conception Bay, his attention was attracted to an object floating on the surface of the water, which at a distance he supposed to be a sail, or the débris of some wreck, but which proved upon nearer inspection to be endowed with life.  Picot, on observing that the object was alive, to satisfy his curiosity pushed his boat alongside, and I believe struck at it with an oar or boat-hook, whereupon the creature’s fury seemed to be aroused, and it struck at the bottom of the boat with its beak, and immediately afterward threw its monstrous tentacles over the boat, which probably it might have dragged to the bottom had not Picot with great presence of mind severed one (or more) of the tentacles with his axe.  A part of this tentacle or sucking arm I have now in my possession, immersed in spirits.  I send you with this letter a couple of photographs of the said tentacle and a few of the small denticulated sucking cups, all of which I hope will reach you safely.

This is a stunning story — even the dry scientific description can’t take all of the drama from it!  Still, the story was apparently not dramatic enough for Moses Harvey; in later tellings, the hero of the story becomes a cool-headed young boy named Tom Picot, who saves the boat by whacking off the beast’s tentacle.

Curiously, even in 1874 Harvey’s story differs in one significant detail from Murray’s.  Harvey published his own account of Picot’s battle and the recovered tentacle, “Gigantic cuttlefishes in Newfoundland,” in The Annals and Magazine of Natural History 13 (1874), 67-70:

Two fisherman were out in a small punt, on October 26, off Portugal Cove, Conception Bay, about 9 miles from St. John’s.  Observing some object floating on the water at a short distance, they rowed towards it, supposing it to be a large sail or the débris of a wreck. On reaching it, one of the men struck it with his “gaff”, when immediately it showed signs of life, reared a parrot-like beak, which they declare was “as big as a six-gallon keg,” with which it struck the bottom of the boat violently.  It then shot out from about its head two huge livid arms and began to twine them around the boat.  One of the men seized a small axe and severed both arms at they lay over the gunwale of the boat, whereupon the fish moved off and ejected an immense quantity of inky fluid, which darkened the water for two or three hundred yards.

Harvey clearly mentions two men being involved in the incident, while Murray quite deliberately mentions only one man, Picot (neither mentions a younger Tom Picot).  I found it rather curious that Harvey’s account only mentions Murray in passing, and Murray mentions Harvey not at all; with the discrepancies in their accounts, it is tempting to speculate that the men had at least a minor falling out over who deserved credit for what they knew to be a major scientific find, and rushed to independently declare it to the world.

Let’s return to Murray’s account:

Picot’s description of this great squid, cuttle or devil-fish is this.  He represents the body of the animal to have been about sixty feet long, and its general diameter as not less than five feet.  The breadth of the tail he represents as at least ten feet.  He states that when the creature found itself mutilated it made off backwards or tail foremost, after the manner of squids, darkening the water over a large space with inky emissions.  The enormous proportions given above might appear to be exaggeration, were they not to a great extent borne out by the fragment of the animal which was severed, and of which the photograph will give you a fair idea.

The size of the creature given here is a bit hard to believe.  Even if one assumes that “body” here refers to the overall length of the squid, it is still significantly larger than giant squid are thought to grow.  The 5-foot diameter also seems rather huge — that’s a squid that I could almost stand upright inside, not a pleasant thought!

A little exaggeration is perhaps understandable, however, given that Picot was facing down something like this:

Live giant squid captured by Japanese researchers in 2006; photo via National Geographic.  If this beast were pulling your boat underwater, it would probably look a lot bigger to you.  My heart skips a beat every time I look at this pic.

The photograph of the recovered tentacle was not printed with Murray’s letter, and they probably didn’t have the means to do so in that era.  In Harvey’s letter, however, a woodcut of the photograph was given:

Back to Murray:

The tentacle measured on the 31st of October, when I first saw it, after it had been several days in strong brine and shrunk in consequence, seventeen feet; but was said to have measured nineteen feet previously.  When it was first landed at a place called Portugal Cove, in Conception Bay and within nine miles of St. John, some six feet was cut off the inner end of this arm, and Picot asserts that the original incision was at least ten feet from its articulation with the body.  Accordingly the whole length of the said arm must have been from thirty-three to thirty-five feet.  The beak or bill of the creature Picot described as being about the size of a six gallon keg.

The size of the tentacle makes this out to be a pretty damn big squid, any exaggerations aside.  The size of the beak seems way, way exaggerated, however: a six gallon keg is comparable to the size of my torso!  From what I’ve seen, the largest beaks are closer in size to a clenched fist.

Though this dramatic capture of a squid tentacle was big news and captured scientific interest, it was not the first big squid to turn up in Newfoundland:

The Rev. Mr. Gabriel now residing at Portugal Cove, but who formerly resided at a place called Lamalein on the south coast of the island, states that, in the winter of 1870 and 1871, two entire cuttle or devil-fish were stranded on the beach near that place, which measured respectively forty and forty-seven feet.

It seems that it was somewhat luck that brought the tentacle to Harvey’s, and then Murray’s, attention; from Harvey’s letter, we find that

One of the arms which they brought ashore was unfortunately destroyed, as they were ignorant of its importance; but the clergy-man of the village assures me it was 10 inches in diameter and 6 feet in length.  The other arm was brought to St. John’s, but not before 6 feet of it were destroyed.  Fortunately I heard of it, and took measures to have it preserved.  Mr. Murray (of the Geological Survey) and I afterwards examined it carefully, had it photographed, and immersed in alcohol; it is now in our Museum.

One other aspect of Picot’s story is of unexpected interest.  As recounted by Murray,

The man Picot says he saw the animal very distinctly for some time after it had been mutilated, swimming astern foremost with its tail above the water’s edge, and that its general color was a pale pinkish, resembling that of the common squid.

The description of the squid’s locomotion is noteworthy, because it has been suggested by a number of investigators, notably Richard Ellis², that many historical sightings of sea serpents may have been misidentified giant squid.  A famous and likely case of such a misidentification was an 1848 observation of a serpent by the HMS Daedalus, in which the serpent was viewed for some 20 minutes traveling along the surface:

Via Wikipedia, one of the original sketches of the Daedalus “sea serpent”.

If one imagines the “head” of the sea serpent to be the tail of a giant squid, traveling in a manner as described by Picot, it is hard not to see the Daedalus serpent as a giant squid!

Putting the drama of Picot’s story aside, the most important aspect of the encounter was the first recovery of a giant squid tentacle and its study by science.  Murray gives a detailed description of the appendage:

The following is an exact copy of the memoranda I made on first inspecting this remarkable tentacle on the 31st of October.  The total length of the fragment from the last incision to the extremity, seventeen feet.  The extremity of the arm or terminating two and one-half feet is flattened, and somewhat in shape like a narrow paddle, tapering toward the end to a sharpish point.  The thickest part of this terminal appendage is about six inches in circumference.

The inner fourteen and one-half feet is rounded in form, varying in thickness from three and one-half to four inches in diameter, or about the size of an ordinary man’s wrist.  On what I shall call the ventral side of this fourteen and one-half feet, there is a set of small tubercles or mammillary processes, which, at the end nearest the articulation, are about two feet apart, but become much closer and more numerous towards the extremity.  Some small valve-like sucking denticulated cups are distributed along the area near the tubercles.  Examples of these you will find in the small pill-box.

At the extreme point of the paddle-shaped extremity, and also at its junction with the rounded part, there is a cluster of small denticulated sucking cups, each cluster containing from fifty to seventy individual cups.  The smallest of these is not larger than the head of a pin.  The broad paddle-like part between the two clusters is armed with a double row, twelve in each, of gigantic suckers, without teeth, each individual measuring about one and one-fourth inches in diameter.

These features of the club end of the tentacle can be seen in the woodcut shown earlier.  The middle of the club has two rows of large, toothless suction cups, and on either side of these are a set of toothed suction cups.  Murray had a little more to say about the shape of the tentacle, including a figure:

A section across the middle part of the arm is of the following form, somewhat flattened (Fig. 44).

The whole tentacle, as coiled up for the photograph, measured two feet, four and one-half inches on the longer diameter.  The photograph is one-fourth the natural size.

As momentous as the recovery of the first giant squid tentacle was, its uniqueness was short-lived.  The mass beaching of giant squid in Newfoundland continued in earnest, and within a month of the battle, more or less complete specimens were recovered.  Right after Murray’s first letter, The American Naturalist published another letter from Murray to Agassiz which describes further finds:

I send you with this two photographs of the creature in question, one being the head and tentacles, the other the body.  The latter part has unfortunately been a good deal mutilated while being extricated from the net in which it was caught.  The head was cut off and the eyes destroyed, but I hope you will find the remainder sufficiently well preserved for description and restoration.

My own descriptive memoranda are as follows: — Caught at Logia Bay, near St. John, Newfoundland, Nov., 1873.  Total length of body seven feet, circumference five feet, tail fan-shaped, pointed at the middle extremity, and between two extremes of extended appendages measures upwards of two feet.  Two tubes run the whole length of the body, one of which contains the inky fluid, the other water.  The eyes of this individual have been destroyed, but the socket of one is attached to the neck, the diameter of which is four inches.  In the centre of the head, there is a powerful beak of black and orange color.  In shape the beak exactly resembles a parrot’s.

Photographs taken by Messrs. Parson and McKenna, St. John, on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 1873.

As I noted earlier, it seems that Moses Harvey became the resident squid gatherer of Newfoundland during the beaching.  He acquired the Logia Bay specimen and draped it over his sponge-bath for visitors to study:

Photograph of the Logia Bay squid; hard to get a sense of the shape in this configuration!  Via Wikipedia.

Other specimens were apparently seen by other locals, though it is hard to believe the sizes reported; from Murray’s second letter (emphasis mine):

A very respectable person, by the name of Pike, informs me that he has seen many of these gigantic squids upon the coast of Labrador; and that he measured the body of one eighty feet from beak to tail.  He also states that a certain Mr. Haddon, a school inspector of this place, measured one ninety feet.  He tells, me, moreover, that the monsters are edible.

They may be edible but, if Mr. Haddon is to be believed, he conveniently left out that giant squid are saturated with ammonia, which helps them stay neutrally buoyant in the ocean depths.  I imagine eating one is like having calamari seasoned with Windex!

It seems that most of the correspondence relating to giant squid was originally forwarded to Professor Agassiz.  He died, however, at the end of 1873, and it seems that his former student Verrill took on the task of studying the flood of specimens that came in.  In his own 1874 report (A.E. Verrill, “Occurrence of gigantic cuttlefishes on the coast of Newfoundland,” The Annals and Magazine of Natural History 13 (1874), 255-258), Verrill describes five different creatures recovered; I include two of the descriptions below, including Verrill’s summary of the “Battle of Conception Bay”:

2.  A large individual attached two men, who were in a small boat, in Conception Bay; and two of the arms which it threw across the boat were cut off with a hatchet and brought ashore.  Full accounts of this adventure, written by Mr. M. Harvey, have been published in many of the newspapers.  One of the severed arms, or a part of it, was preserved in the museum at St. John’s; and a photograph of it is now before me.  This fragment represents the distal half of one of the long tentacular arms, with its expanded terminal portion covered with suckers, 24 of which are larger, in two rows, with the border not serrate, but 1.25 inch in diameter; the others are smaller, very numerous, with the edge supported by a serrated calcareous ring.  The part of the arm preserved measured 19 feet in length, and 3.5 inches in circumference, but wider, “like an oar,” and 6 inches in circumference, near the end where the suckers are situated; but its length, when entire, was estimated at 42 feet.  The other arm was destroyed, and no description was made; but it was said to have been 6 feet long and 10 inches in diameter; it was evidently one of the eight shorter sessile arms.  The estimate given for the length of the “body” of this creature (60 feet) was probably intended for the entire length, including the arms.

Verrill seems to have come to the same conclusion that I did about the estimate of the size of the creature; of course, I had the benefit of hindsight, so his deduction is much more impressive.

3.  A specimen was found alive in shallow water, at Coomb’s Cove, and captured.  Concerning this one I have seen only newspaper accounts.  It is stated that its body measured 10 feet in length and was “nearly as large round as a hogshead” (10 to 12 feet); its two long arms (of which only one remained) were 42 feet in length and “as large as a man’s write;” its short arms were 6 feet in length, but about 9 inches in diameter, “very stout and strong;” the suckers had a serrated edge.  The colour was reddish.  The loss of one long arm and the correspondence of the other in size to the one amputated from No. 2, justifies a suspicion that this was actually the same individual that attacked the boat. But if not, it was probably one of the same species and of about the same size.

(Emphasis mine.)  Justice is served!³  Did they actually capture Picot’s attacker?  We’ll never know, but it is sort of an intriguing idea.

It is somewhat hard to say for certain with the information I have, but it seems that the Newfoundland mass beaching was the event that really brought Architeuthis firmly into the view of the scientific community.  With a collection of highly-publicized reports and specimens on hand, scientists finally had something to work with to categorize and understand the elusive giant.

The “Battle of Conception Bay” curiously came full circle some 130 years later.  Based on examinations of Architeuthis specimens, a  number of researchers had hypothesized that the giant squid was a passive hunter, floating quietly in darkness waiting for something to come in reach of its tentacles, an image strikingly at odds with Picot’s story.  For a long, long time, there were no observations to confirm or contradict this view, but in 2004, Japanese scientists managed to hook a deep-ocean giant squid and snap some 500 photographs of it before it broke free, the squid losing an arm in the process.  In 2006, these same researchers caught and videoed a live giant squid, the same animal shown in the color photo earlier in this post.  (The video may be watched here, though I find it more depressing than illuminating.) The 2004 photographs showed, contrary to speculation, that the giant squid is a very active creature and an active predator, vindicating an observation first made quite unwillingly by Theophilus Picot many years earlier.

This was one of several great parallels between the 2004 sighting and the 1873 sighting: not only did both encounters demonstrate how active a giant squid can be, both were “firsts” in their own way in the understanding of giant squid — and both squid involved lost an arm in the process!


¹ This same letter was first published in Proc. Boston Soc. Nat. Hist. 16 (1874), 161-163.  The discussion in The American Naturalist includes some significant follow-up, discussed in the post.

² In piecing together the early history of Architeuthis and the story of the Conception Bay squid, I found the book by Richard Ellis, The Search for the Giant Squid (The Lyons Press, 1998), to be absolutely essential — and an awesome book to read!

³ Update: In all honesty, though I’m happy that Picot survived his encounter, he really brought the tentacles down upon his own head, so to speak.  I wonder at the thought process that leads a man, encountering a living, unknown and alien creature 3 times the size of his boat, to say to himself, “The best course of action is to stick this thing with a boat hook.”

This entry was posted in Animals, History of science. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Attack of the giant squid! (1874)

  1. chezjake says:

    A very nicely told tale. Thank you.

  2. Thony C. says:

    Beware! Not only are you treading on the toes of your aquatic blogging friends you have veered into the territory of the blogahedron overlord PZ McSquid!

    • drskyskull says:

      I felt I was distinctly as risk of being either (a) keelhauled or (b) sacrificed to Cthulhu, but I seem to have earned at least a tacit approval from all parties involved. *Whew!*

  3. Gotta tell you in as many internet-ways as possible – this post is truly fantastic. You rule.

    I’ve been sitting on the Richard Ellis book for years – it’s in my bedroom now. (I picked it up after finishing Ellis’s “Monsters of the Sea,” another great one, and it felt like too much at the time.) May have to dive into it soon…


    • drskyskull says:

      Thanks, again! I’m very happy with this post, and I think it’s one of my favorite pieces of writing ever!

      I also have Ellis’s “Monsters” and “Squid” on my shelf, and I loved them both! “Squid” is definitely worth the time to read.

  4. QED says:

    What a fantastic story. Thank you for writing and sharing.

    Yours in Cthulhu,


  5. Marilyn Merker Goldman says:

    fabulous story about my favorite topic, excellently told!

  6. Schlega says:

    I wish I’d read this before noticing a can of “Immitation Abalone Made from Giant Squid” in the grocery store. I can verify that it tastes disgusting.

  7. kdcosta says:

    This was a fantastic read. I have a soft spot for the sea monsters that this satisfied nicely!

    • drskyskull says:

      Thank you! I’ve been a “fan” of giant squid since I was a kid, and have known about this “battle” for just as long. Looking up the original papers on it and writing about them is almost like fulfilling a childhood dream.

  8. Pingback: Metasepia linkeri, the Flamboyant Cuttlepost | Cephalove

  9. Mark O'Neill says:

    There is a very deep trench in Conception Bay, Newfoundland – between Bell Island and Portugal Cove. I wonder do these deep sea creatures find themselves lead closer to shore, following such a ridge, like cod following a leader into a trap…

Leave a Reply to drskyskull Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.